January 10, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
Happy New Year, by John Atkinson
Io Saturnalia!, by Wes Phillips
• This Month's Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

Happy New Year, by John Atkinson

No politics this time, just the best if slightly belated wishes for the New Year from all of us at Stereophile. May all audiophiles have a music-filled 2006. May their LPS never pop, their CDs never stutter, their fuses never blow, their amplifiers never melt, their connections never get dirty, their woofers never distort, and their tweeters never expire.

The reason our New Year wishes are late is that we have just spend the past week at the 2006 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Stereophile exhibited both in the LVCC South Hall and in room 1702 at the Alexis Villas (originally the Alexis Park). I sent Wes Phillips, Stephen Mejias, Jon Iverson, Larry Greenhill, and Robert Deutsch to the Show to photograph and write about all that impressed them. We all blogged on a continual basis: you can find our multitudinous reports at http://blog.stereophile.com/ces2006—I think it safe to say that this was most fun any of us had had at a CES.

Simaudio Ltd.
Simaudio Ltd., celebrating 25 years of excellence, manufactures state-of-the-art components for both 2-channel and home-theater systems. Maintaining a world-class reputation, we continually push the performance envelope to the next level with each new product. Visit us at www.simaudio.com.
Io Saturnalia! by Wes Phillips

Well, it's that most wonderful time of the year, when it seems as though all of us professional writers are either compiling our "Best of 2005" lists or boldly predicting the hot trends of 2006-except for the daring few who publish our New Year's resolutions.

We Stereophile writers have already gone through two different "best of" processes: the voting for our Product of the Year feature, which you've already seen in the December issue, and the "Records To Die For" feature, which you'll see in the February issue. I'm not brave enough to commit to any New Year's resolutions—I suffer no delusions about my will power. I do, however, have a prediction for 2006: It will be the year that kills the record industry as we know it—and that just might be a good thing for the high-end audio industry.

This line of thought was started by an issue of The Lefsetz Letter (to subscribe: www.lefsetz.com/lists/?p=subscribe&id=1), an e-newsletter published by music-industry legend Bob Lefsetz. I'd been on the receiving end of a mass mailing of one of Lefsetz's columns that Manley Audio Labs' EveAnna Manley sent to a bunch of high-end audio types and was impressed enough to subscribe. My first issue included Lefsetz's analysis of 2005's year-to-date record sales.

I'd seen the sales figures, but I hadn't pondered them the way Lefsetz did—and even if I had, I probably would have missed the big story. His take is that selling a scant 300,000 copies of an album got you in the top-selling 200 releases of 2005, and that making the jump to a million placed you in the top 40. You could make it into the top 10 with sales of 2 million.

Okay, selling 2 million records isn't easy, or everybody would be doing it—and acts like U2 (765,907), the Dave Matthews Band (1,292,258), and Beck (730,727) couldn't do it in 2005, even with huge amounts of media saturation and the support of major labels. What struck Lefsetz as fascinating was that a lot of acts made it into the top 200 without the benefit of a major label. Independent labels that had one hot act and promoted the heck out of it did as well as, or better than, the much-vaunted Big Four.

Lefsetz's take on Death Cab for Cutie's Plans (#173, with sales of 351,698) says it all: "Wow, I thought they'd be closer to a million! What with all that hype/press. What with their shift to a major label. And here we have the fallacy in action. Death Cab shifts to a major. Which supposedly can do so much better than an indie. But, Victory, a complete indie, distributing through Red, sold 476,052 copies of Hawthorne Heights' Silence in Black and White (#126). Granted, it's not the same kind of music. But it appears that the passion of Tony Brummel and his team mean more than the imprimatur of the major label. Maybe that's all you get, an imprimatur, a facade, behind which there's...nothing."

That's what the record industry is really afraid of. There is no great and powerful Oz—just a flack behind the curtain. Even worse, despite what it's paying, the record industry doesn't even have the best flacks.

Why would you need a major label if it didn't increase your chances of topping the charts? Simple answer: You don't. In fact, a major would just throw a lot more money into your recording project—money you'd have to pay back before you got paid one dime for your hit. Why not do it yourself and start ringing the cash register sooner?

The situation is probably even worse for the record companies than the charts show, since many bands sell most of their recordings direct at their shows, through their own websites, and through other nontraditional channels—in other words, in ways that don't report to Nielsen's SoundScan or Billboard at all—so we have no way of knowing how many copies they're selling.

Nothings succeeds like excess

When you get right down to it, the reason that independent labels and the bands themselves are doing a better job of merchandizing music than the major labels is because they're passionate about what they do. The Big Four don't really love the records they release—well, not any more than they would any other act that sold 4 million records. What the Big Four love is money, period. However, you can bet your socks that Victory Records loves Hawthorne Heights, and not just for padding out the bottom line.

That's why the Big Four keep putting out cookie-cutter recordings. They don't get it and they don't care. When Britney Spears sold records, the major labels scoured the provinces for more pop tarts. It wasn't about what they believed in; it was what they believed we'd buy, and it was easier to sell us more of the same than it was to commit to something different.

Which, incidentally, was precisely what got the labels in trouble with SACD and DVD-Audio. Yes, the format war didn't help, but the real problem was that the labels were convinced that, simply because so many consumers replaced their cassettes with CDs, we all wanted to do it again with a "new" format. While many consumers held off committing to a hi-rez format because they wanted to see which one would predominate, I suspect that far more didn't commit to either because they simply didn't see any compelling music to listen to.

Surely I'm not the only observer who found it ironic that independent label Telarc offered more reasons to buy SACD players than the Big Four combined. And on every one of those discs, Telarc told its customers what they were buying: a hybrid SACD/CD. ABKCO did a fabulous job of remastering the Rolling Stones catalog and releasing it on hybrid SACD/CD, but it didn't even identify the discs as such on the packaging—so how many non-audiophiles even knew what they were buying?

If they want to stay away, you can't stop them

Although the failure of SACD and DVD-A to gain traction was an audio issue, I blame that failure on the record labels. The same mentality that caused those formats to fizzle is killing the major record labels.

In one sense, it's the same problem. The ubiquity of compression and oversaturation of recordings has destroyed the one advantage that the High End used to offer over mainstream electronics: It doesn't matter what you play them on, most recordings today sound like crap.

When I heard my first pair of tube-driven Quad ESL loudspeakers, they revealed stuff on my records that I hadn't heard in hundreds of plays. Am I going to hear anything from Demon Days by Gorillaz on my audio system (Ayre Acoustics, Conrad-Johnson, darTZeel, Thiel) that I haven't heard on my computer? Sadly, the answer is probably no.

Which may explain why some dealers and manufacturers have stopped trying. It's getting hard to make a pure audio buck out there.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing. Some stores will close, others will specialize in home theaters or custom installation, and a few will sell hi-fi because that's where their passion lies. It certainly won't be because that's where the easy money is.

Some stores sell what they think the consumer wants, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the best stores sell what they fervently believe the consumer needs. You can recognize them by they way the salesfolk talk to you. How much do you want to spend? is a crap question. What do you want to do? is the question you ought to hear—and the one many stores are afraid to ask.

My local bike shop, Verrazano Bicycles, is like that. On my first visit to the shop, Tom Kim actually suggested I spend less money than I'd intended, although he's certainly made back the difference a few times since. Tom didn't just sell me a bike, he sold me the right bike for my needs at that time—and it came with a lot of extras. Fitting and setup were definitely included. Ditto for loaner bikes, free trials, regular checkups (including free pre-Century tune-ups), and generous trade-in allowances. Of course, Tom can't offer me all of that service and beat every price I can find on the Web. However, I think it's worth a few bucks more to get that kind of service.

Sound idyllic? It is, a little. Stop by Verrazano and you'll see enthusiasts like me, dressed in spandex and walking tipped back on the heels of their cleated cycling shoes, but you'll also see teens with trick bikes and parents buying cruisers to ride with their kids. And you'll see lots of those kids hanging out and dreaming about their next bike. Tom sold me a carbon-fiber road bike, but he pays the rent by selling an awful lot of $250 starter bikes.

I've watched him do it. He likes putting people on bikes, and he's just as serious about selling those starter bikes as he was when I bought my Trek 5900. Maybe more serious. All he had to do with me, after all, was say, "Ride it, then we'll talk price."

Tom Kim sells bicycles because he loves bikes, bike riders, and biking. He's not doing it simply for the dough, and he earns every dime he makes. But he does it because he loves it.

Jason Victor Serinus recently wrote about the Music Lovers shops, based in San Francisco and Oakland, on the Stereophile website . Music Lovers seems to approach hi-fi the way Tom Kim does bikes. So do Casey McKee's Ne Plus Ultra in Austin, Texas, and Leon Shaw's Audio Advice in Raleigh, North Carolina, which JA writes about in the February issue of the print magazine. There obviously are still hi-fi stores that sell audio because they can't imagine selling anything else. That's the way uh-huh uh-huh I like it.

There are, however, specialty audio stores that have managed to antagonize their customers almost as much as the major record labels—and for the same reasons. When you care more about the sale than you care about the customer, you don't inspire much love. If you're just going to point to an amp or CD player and say, "Take it or leave it," don't be surprised if I choose the second option. I already have a CD player; I don't need another one. But make me want it—let me ride it, as it were—and then we might talk price.

There are better audio products out there than most people realize, but they'll never know that by going to the average audio store. There's still great music out there, but most people will never hear about it from BMG/Sony, EMI, UMG, or Warner. What most of us respond to is passion. Show us a product that's really better and we'll buy it—play us a song we want to hear and we'll buy that, too. What we don't need is tired merchandise that's passed its sell-by date—and the same goes for tired merchandising.

I'm hoping that 2006 is the year two industries rediscover their souls and remind us why we need 'em.

From Wes Phillips

Space music: www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/classic/news/radiophonatron.shtml.

For more of Wes' amazing links, go to his blog at http://blog.stereophile.com/wesphillips

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